I used to have beautiful teeth, though only my brother remembers. But one morning when the light was sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel I woke to blood in the bed, and the remains of my first child spilling like wine from my body. After showering, I pulled away the blankets and stripped the sheets to find a strawberry shaped stain already dampening the mattress, bright and wet as a living heart. I burned the sheets in my gravel drive, but couldn’t bring myself to cover the mattress. And when the moon bloomed silver in my window that night, my gums began to soften, receding over months like a slow tide. The child had been my secret, and then it was written on my body. Parting my lips in a grimace exposed a mouth barbed with tiny bones, like fossils thrust up after the earth’s upheaval.
My boyfriend worked at the paper mill, and he often brought home clumps of crystal we nested in a glass bowl and burned away by evening. Some afternoons, while smoke still throbbed thick and hot from the mill stacks, my brother drove to my house on the edge of town and he would leave his child playing in the gravel drive. Let me help, he’d plead. A basement bedroom, the offer of a sterile month to the south—even money if I would only move someplace new.
But those were my golden hours, when the summer light was like honey and I was caught between waking and the relief of evening. Out the kitchen window my brother’s daughter squatted down to overturn concrete blocks, uncovering ground still wet with morning and pocked by tiny burrows, but after three or four she jumped suddenly back, startled. When I broke the silence between my brother and I to remind him of my own lost baby, and how my once beautiful teeth were crumbling like ash in my mouth, he lowered his eyes and would not look up.
I discovered the second child slipping away in burgundy knots of tissue in a bar bathroom stall. How long had it grown inside me? I walked home and passed the rest alone in my bed, on my bare mattress, the dull brown of the strawberry heart once again flushed red. Strange, that this should give me comfort, as though my first child was no longer alone. My teeth loosened at the roots until I could have rolled them from my gums with a toothbrush. They trembled in my breath like the last leaves of autumn. I couldn’t eat, afraid they’d catch in hardened bread or a sinew of beef. The enamel thinned until I could see my tongue moving like a shadow in my mouth. I rarely left the bed, never the house, and I paid my body to the man from the paper mill, my once lover who brought me only the cloudiest slivers of crystal.
And my brother, when he last visited, left his daughter at home, and he sat at the folding table in my kitchen letting tears run in twin lines along the ridge of his nose. They collected in dimples at the corners of his tight lips and he touched them away with the tip of his tongue as I told him how I woke choking on a tooth dislodged in the night, how I finished a glass of whiskey to find a molar rocking transparent in the amber liquid, a thin worm of blood twisting gently in the dreg. And I pretended, watching him taste his tears, that he was weeping for my lost children and for my once beautiful teeth. Grandmother was beat until her hair turned white, I reminded him, speaking quickly to hide my empty pocket of a mouth.
But my brother only continued to cry, unable to lift his eyes from the curling yellow linoleum of my kitchen floor. I understood. Staring out the window where his daughter once played, I thought of the layers of stain on my bed upstairs and I waited for my brother to leave so I could stretch my body out over them like soil. It was good that my brother once came, like a mourner filing past a casket, but the time for comfort has passed. Some afternoons, in light stale with winter, his presence in the kitchen is almost obscene. What words now could console the body’s erosion?